Drunken Angel

Kurosawa's breakout feature stars a gruff, irascible but golden-hearted doctor working in a slum and doing his very best to heal both the bodies and the souls of his patients. The metaphor is bluntly stated and frequently reiterated – dirt and disease are the physical counterparts of the moral evils committed by the yakuza who control the neighbourhood. There is a giant swamp in the middle of the district to underline the point. 

The doctor tries to save the life of a young gangster who he diagnoses with tuberculosis. But treatment involves staying away from the drink and excitement of life as a criminal. Ultimately it's impossible to stay clean and healthy while living in the city. The film floats the prospect of returning to health and finding love in the countryside, but the yakuza cannot stay away. He's stuck in the swamp, and dies there.

The film is notable for being Kurosawa's first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, who really does dominate the screen. He can be as suave and debonair as Marcello Mastroianni in 1960s Rome and as physical and dangerous as a jungle cat. There's a scene of him taking a girl for a spin in a nightclub where he looks like he could command armies with a swing of a hip. Mifune is emasculated by the introduction of a bigger and badder crime boss, but he sells the desperation he falls into well, and is given a grandiose death scene as a fitting send-off. 

Mifune's energy is well matched by that of the doctor, played by Takashi Shimura, who cannot stop himself speaking his mind and never speaks when he can shout. Without the portentous body politic metaphor the film is basically a character study of a man stuck where he is because he cannot grease the wheels of social advancement. He calls bullshit everywhere he sees it and as a result cannot escape being engulfed by it. Kurosawa doesn't quite know where to take the character. The ending gives him a little moment of grace with a young patient he has managed to cure, but that is set against a lifetime stitching up criminals and burying bodies, and it rings a bit false. Kurosawa may have had his first hit, but it seems he was still learning his craft.

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